Using YouTube in a Tutoring Session

I have some good news! The HLC has been awarded an American Dream Grant from the American Library Association and Dollar General Stores. With this grant we plan to purchase tablet computers to use for a series of citizenship classes and for use in our daily HLC tutoring sessions! We are very excited.

With that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to think about ways we can use the tablets in our tutoring sessions. They will come pre-loaded with some applications, and I am sure I will talk more about most of them in the future. What I would like to start out talking about is using YouTube in a tutoring session.

There are a variety of ways and reasons for using video in your lesson. The first is that adult learners appreciate and excel with visual learning materials. Video is an excellent, multi-sensory resource that can activate learning in the brain. Many of our students are almost certainly using YouTube to learn many things, so we can use our new tablets to augment those activities.

There are multiple features on the YouTube platform, and many ways to approach a learning situation with YouTube that I would like to discuss. Perhaps some of you have some favorite videos and approaches that you are already using. If so, tell us about them in the comments!


Closed Captioning
One good use of the videos is to have spoken words, and visual stimulus at the same time. Most ESL students may already know this, but YouTube has closed captioning for each video. In the YouTube App, which works slightly differently than on your computer, you select the menu in the top right corner (three vertical dots). There you will find the option to turn on the Closed Captioning.

One word of warning, the captions are computer generated most of the time, and they can contain various errors. Also, although literacy students can see words as they are being spoken, you’ll probably need to find a video that has words at their level. This can be a challenge.

Finally, you don’t need to use closed captioning all the time. After all, we want people to learn how to hear the words and know what they are, so try watching a video without the captioning, talk about what the learner understood and what they didn’t (ask them comprehension questions), then watch a final time or two with the captions on.

Speed control
Another feature of YouTube is that is has the ability to slow (or speed up) the video. Of course, this is very handy for language learners. The option to change the playback speed is located in the same menu in the top right of the video.

List save
One other option that you may find handy, especially if you look at videos beforehand, is to make a list. To do this, at the top of the video you will see an icon with three lines and a plus sign. Press on this, and you will see a line pop up saying “Saved to Favorites.” There will also be the word “Change” in that pop up. Press “Change” and you will get more options, including to make a new list instead of saving to your favorites. You will have a few options, like “Watch Later,” but you can go ahead and make a list called “Tutoring” if you want, and then save videos there.


Of course, there are myriad videos about ESL. They will range from lessons about grammar, speech, pronunciation, to going to the store. You can look at videos of language lessons if you want to, but these aren’t really a priority unless you are trying to answer a learner’s specific question about a grammar form, per se.

Pop culture or topic specific videos
Take a look at some of these from time to time to add spice to your tutoring sessions. These will be fun and entertaining for both the student and tutor. You can really watch any video you want so long as you have a technique for incorporating the video content or language input into your session. One of the best ways to do this is to have a pre-discussion session where you talk about some ideas or information you may get from the video based on its title, or an image from the video. You may want to discuss any vocabulary that is important to understanding the video. Then watch the video (numerous times, with closed captioning, slowed down if you want). Afterwards, discuss what you saw. Discuss what was learned from the video. Interpret the video. Just describe the video. You be the judge, based on the level of your learner.

Many learners love music. You can use YouTube to find all kinds of music videos, music games, and karaoke. One popular activity is to make a fill in the blank form for the song where you give the learner some of the words, but leave out keywords that you want them to listen for. Often times, you can find these pre-made on the internet.

Some final Advice
Try to watch videos in advance. You probably want to know what you’re facing before you get into it. Be especially aware of certain music videos, which may be a bit racy or have language you may not appreciate. You be the judge. And, all you have to do is practice the approach of talking before watching, watching, and talking after watching, and you have a lesson!

Having Learners Help Each Other

In this blog post, I would like to talk about something that came up in a call from a tutor about a mixed-level group she has. It’s kind of related to the last past, but we can also go to another level of thinking about how we integrate students in a small group tutoring session, even if the students are at slightly different levels.

I’ll explain the situation the tutor found herself in, but first, let me tell you a little bit about how we determine the level of a learner and how we decide whether or not to group a learner with someone else or find them their own tutor.

Basically, our only opportunity to assess the level of an ESL student occurs when they call for the first time and we (mainly Laura) talks to them personally. We have a series of questions on our intake form that asks them if they can or can’t do certain things in English, like count, read a newspaper, etc. And of course, we try to speak to them a little bit in English and see how they do. Then, we compare them to a chart, which you also have in the training manual on page thirty seven of the current edition (May 2018 edition. Available on the shared drive) and frankly, we guess their level. That is to say, we don’t have any assessment test or instrument to use to calculate their level more scientifically. But…it works out pretty well for our program, for the most part. And in any case, tutors can always adjust materials and levels as they see fit.

Once we have determined a student’s level, we match them with a tutor. If the student is close to the level of another student who meets at a time and library that works out for all parties, we will put them together. So, if students have an exact level match, great! If they are just one level apart, say, a level two and a level three, we’ll go for it there, too. But we won’t match a level one with a level three, for example.

If you find yourself with slightly different levels in your group, first, let me say thank you for your effort! Keeping this system is one way we can deal with student-tutor matching, and our general lack of tutors. On the other hand, I know there are some issues that can arise in this situation, such as the issue I was called about last week. A tutor called saying one of her students was beginning level 1, and a newer student recently placed with her was ready to start the level two book. She wondered how she would work with them together…would she have to do two separate lessons from two books in one session? It seemed like a complicated situation. Let me relate the advice I gave her, and we’ll see what you think.

My first piece of advice was not to be concerned or stressed. Having one student that is at a somewhat higher level than other students is considered a pretty good dynamic by many educators, and is based on ideas by Lev Vygotsy, a social psychologist whose ideas are very influential in the field of education. His view is that learning is assisted when a more knowledgeable member of a social group helps a less knowledgeable member move from one level of skill to the next level, one that the learner couldn’t reach without a little help. So, if there are different levels, then you have the tutor AND the higher level student in a position to help the lower level student. The only thing to watch out for is when the learners are too far apart in skill, which is why I wouldn’t pair a level one with a level three.

So, hopefully that takes some pressure off! The next thing to do is to think about how best to design interactions during the session where we are addressing the lowest level learner by applying the skills of the higher learner, then finishing by having the tutor, as the most-skilled member of the group, helping the more advanced student get to the next level that he or she couldn’t reach alone. This is when artistry, creativity, and a little experimentation comes into play.

My advice was to divide the session time into three equal parts. In the first part, focus on a lesson of the lowest level student. While doing this, get the other student to take the lead and try and guide the lower student through a lesson while the tutor steps back and is there mainly to help out and guide the situation. Then switch gears and work on a lesson with the other student while the lower-level student helps out as best they can. Then, use the final third of the session to discuss topics from from both lessons as a group. This should boost everyone. The lower level will get good exposure to a lot of language, the higher level will get some good review and lots of opportunity to practice. Since the Lifeprints books have lessons based on different themes, it shouldn’t be too difficult to switch between lessons. In other words, they don’t necessarily build on the previous lesson, so you can jump in here and there and talk about counting, going to the bank, etc. The final discussion time is where the real learning will happen.

This may seem awkward at times, but I think you will see a rapid leveling out of both students because they will be using that language with each other. Using language is the most important part of language education. That’s when mastery happens.

Another thing that I find to be true is that more advanced students aren’t always as advanced as we might think at first. Unless you have been working with a student a long time, it could be easy to overestimate their skills based only on how well they seem to know something in the book. In other words, it’s easy for learners to recognize something they see in a book, but it’s harder for them to use language from recall. Again, mastery comes from discussion. When a student is able to talk about something fairly consistently, then you know they know it.

So, in sum, if you plan your session time to take advantage of the social dynamic, and you are sure to include some good discussion time, I think you will find a lot of fun and improvement in your groups, even if they aren’t at the exact same level. It’s ok to be open and honest about using this approach with your students. They’ll understand. Heck, I recently used this method in a college ESL program that had two different levels of students in it, and I got some positive feedback. It wasn’t always great, but the students appreciated it overall. Yours will, too.

Health Literacy Initiative is Under Way!

The Literacy Department has undertaken a new initiative to help promote Health Literacy, while of course promoting Reading and English Literacy at the same time! You may already be aware that we released a lesson plan earlier in March to coordinate with National Nutrition Month. We plan to release a second lesson for March, and more throughout the year. We hope that tutors will enjoy taking a break from the traditional teaching materials to explore some new ideas and boost language competence among our students when it comes to having the ability to discuss their healthcare and nutrition needs.

Low skill in Health Literacy is believed to be a significant factor that prevents people in the demographic that we serve from accessing healthcare. According to, “For many individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP), the inability to communicate in English is the primary barrier to accessing health information and services.” And, limited literacy skills overall are considered to be an indicator that a person is less likely to seek and obtain healthcare.

For these reasons, we are trying to make a bridge between the services we already offer, and Health Literacy. We will be creating lessons and storing them in our shared drive where you can access, download, and print them whenever you would like to use them. They don’t necessarily have to be used in the month for which we create them, so feel free to try them out whenever you want a change of pace from Lifeprints, Laubach, etc.

What about Conversation Corners? They can use these materials as well. I recommend dividing up your groups into smaller groups and have them work through the activities together. The Corner host can circulate around to check on their progress and support students as they go along.

You’ll notice that we have included (Thanks, Laura!) the perennial favorite: word searches and crossword puzzles. These are great partner activities as well as at home follow-ups to the lesson. After students complete a crossword, I recommend that you ask more questions using the targeted vocabulary. These lessons are also a great opportunity for a doctor’s office role play, a grocery store role play, or any scenario where students can practice a speaking situation they may face when making health decisions.

According to national directive, any public service, including health care, receiving funding from the federal government must provide information about their services in various languages pertinent to the demographics of the area. They must also provide “plain language” information (i.e. jargon free) about their services. We can make sure we are at least providing some exposure to such “plain language” about health care and health issues. Please feel free to express any recommendations or questions in the comments, and please enjoy the lessons!

Also, FYI, the fact sheet I cited (linked below) is great lesson material.

A very special thank you to Laura for all her hard work on this month’s lessons!

Find lessons here.


Citations “Quick Guide to Health Literacy.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Eric’s Top Eight Online Resources List

I have been thinking for a while about great ways to help the HLC volunteer community in their efforts to teach literacy and English skills. I wanted to start out by sharing a list of what I believe to be the internet’s greatest gems that relate directly to our efforts. And, I mean directly, too. Many of these web resources I’m going to tell you about are the actual supporting materials for our textbooks, while others give a lot of the extra resources that tutors ask for, such as more supplemental materials. And finally, some of these websites give bunches of great aids to any language learner’s effort, no matter who you are.

This isn’t a ranked list, but I am willing to bet that you will find something really great in all of them.

And now, without further ado…..the list!

  1. New Readers Press

First, all of our tutoring books (published by New Readers Press) have online supplemental materials in PDF available through their website. You can download and print them as much as you like. For almost every book you can find teacher’s resources and manuals; flashcards, games and activities; and for each series except Grammar Wise there is an initial diagnostic test to help determine the reading and speaking level of your student. Some even include an online training course for tutors.

Laubach Way to Reading, Level 1 (this link goes to level one, but you can click to other levels and related books at the bottom of the screen.)

English – No Problem! (Great flashcards and games in this one)

Lifeprints (This one includes the audio that goes with the book, among all the other items)

Grammar Wise (The important document here is the instructor’s manual)

  1. Oxford Bookworm Series

The Literacy Department likes to order books from a series called Oxford Bookworms. These are a line of books known as “hi-lo,” which means, “high interest, low level.” These are great books for literacy and ESL students to practice their reading skills. They come in many different levels of readers, and in both fiction and non-fiction. To find them, you can search the catalog at for “Oxford Bookworms.”

The Oxford Bookworms website has available 7 levels of reading tests to help determine the reading level of the student. It also provides reading guides and tests for many of the books, although you have to make a free account to access them. The aim of the materials is reading comprehension, but many of the activities could be adapted to ESL purposes and could be great ways to learn vocabulary and promote discussion.

3: Orca Rapid reads

Like the Oxford Bookworms, this is a hi-lo series. All of the titles are original fiction, and they are also available at different reading levels. They can be found by searching the catalog for “rapid reads.” When the results pop up, do a search again at the top of the screen. This time change the option in the “Search By” field to series. This will get you the whole list.

Most books in this series have online reading guides with summaries and discussion questions. These would be for more advanced learners in our program.

  1. American English

Another online resource that I like is managed by the US Department of State. Everything on is free and printable. The purpose of this site is to provide teacher resources overseas, so there are a few items that are not available online or in the US, but most items are downloadable. You will notice that the site has three sections: a general news/about us section, a resources section, and a section for English Teaching Forum. The latter is a professional journal for ESL teachers, but it often contains lesson ideas and interesting thoughts about teaching. The most interesting part to HLC tutors will be the resources section. Here you will find all the publications put out by the Department of State for classroom use. It is searchable by skill and level. I particularly like Activate Games for Learning American English. Each lesson comes with a teacher’s guide and a board game, which you could download and print. Audio lessons also include downloadable MP3s. And for gamers, there is a first-person video game called, Trace Effects, which is very fun, but not for absolute beginners in English.

  1. VOA Learning English  

Like the above resources, the government also produces an international news source called Voice of America. This service provides basic English learning resources through its “Learning English” website. Here you will find an excellent video series for level 1 and 2 learners. The rest of the site delivers current news in articles ranked for readability into levels 1 to 3. All articles provide slow audio and vocabulary in context with definitions at the end.


  1. BBC English

Similar to VOA, the BBC also offers a news-based English learning site called, “BBC-Learning English.” However, this site is more comprehensive in offering lessons for a wider range of skill levels. It has a wider variety of activities, including adapted scripts and dramatization for popular stories, and grammar lessons and pronunciation…albeit British. There is so much on this site I would dehydrate trying to tell you about it all. This site is almost overwhelmingly stocked with great resources! And there is even a lot of English lessons in other languages, such as Mandarin and Thai!


Memrise is a pet site of mine. I recommend it to literally everyone. It is basically great for learning vocabulary, and I have used it myself for years. Vocabulary lists and other lessons are made by the community, not the company, so there is wide variance in what you come across, but users can add their own mnemonic devices to each vocabulary word in order to better help them remember. An example is adding a meme that relates to your target word, and makes you laugh so much you will always remember the word: thus MEMrise. On top of that, the software takes you through several stages of learning, beginning with an introduction to the word and its meaning, then you do a quick multiple choice quiz, eventually moving on to a fill in the blank quiz….each way building your memory. It is nice and repetitive, so you get lots of exposure to your vocabulary. It has a downloadable app that you could use, for example, while waiting in line at the grocery store. Use it!

  1. Mango Languages

Finally, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Mango Languages, which the library system subscribes to. All users in Hillsborough county should access Mango Languages through our website. You can use Mango as a guest, but it won’t save your progress if you do so. Making a profile is free and easy; just remember, you will need a library card number to make the profile. Once you have made the profile, you can learn any number of languages. For our purposes there are courses in English for speakers from a variety of language backgrounds. They choose English as the language they want to learn, then select their native language, and away they go! The English course has many different lessons, all of which are very vibrant and high quality. The program approaches the language learning process from many angles, including grammar matching between the mother tongue and English. There is also an app that allows users to listen to lessons while doing other things, like working. Very convenient!

And there you have it! These resources alone could keep us busy well stocked in activities and inspiration for the foreseeable future.  If, after looking through these resources, you find something you feel merits special recognition, please leave a comment and share your thoughts with the rest of us! Thank you again for all you do!

Starting the conversation: the Shared Literacies Blog

Hello, everyone! I have been hearing from some of you about your experiences with tutoring and Conversation Corner sessions, and I have detected a few themes. So, I have decided to start this blog as a way of providing a vehicle where we can share our experiences, our knowledge, and our resources in order to keep tutoring sessions and Conversation Corners fresh and fun for all involved. If there is something you want to talk about, all you have to do is post a comment below any blog entry, and the conversation starts from there. sounds fun, doesn’t it?

I’m no stranger to our teaching formats: both small group, discussion group, and one-on-one. Like you I have experienced the same feelings of pride and fun from working with people who are trying to improve themselves, and I also know about the challenges that come with finding new things to do with your group, new approaches to old material, dealing with people who don’t really speak English, more advanced learners becoming bored, and more. And I am happy to share what I know about these issues and look forward to hearing from you as well.

I started working on a document that I thought I would dispense to Conversation Corner organizers, but I thought that a blog might be a better engine of engagement with you. In this way we can explore issues as they come and we can perhaps go more in-depth, yet have more digestible portions of information than one super-document would be. And of course, everything here will continue to exist in an easily searchable way as we move into the future.

So, with that said, welcome to the Shared Literacies Blog!


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